The 1911 Coca-Cola brain poison trial

The Psychologist has a fascinating article on how the world’s favourite tooth rot, Coca-Cola, was the subject of a 1911 court case brought by the US government who believed it damaged the brain.

Although curious enough in itself, the incident also launched the career of Harry Hollingworth – later one of the founders of advertising psychology – who was paid to create laboratory tests to see whether the soft drink really caused cognitive problems.

Hollingworth was only a graduate student at the time but took the money after better known psychologists wanted to avoid getting their hands dirty with corporate cash. Apparently, Hollingworth later wrote that “he accepted the offer from the Coca-Cola Company because at his young age he ‘had as yet, no sanctity to preserve’.”

The impetus behind the lawsuit was Harvey Washington Wiley, head of the Bureau of Chemistry of the US Department of Agriculture. Wiley had long been a vocal opponent of caffeine and was especially critical of its role in the popular beverage. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Coca-Cola Company marketed the beverage as ‘the ideal brain tonic’, emphasising the stimulant properties of the drink, noting in its advertising that it ‘invigorated the fatigued body and quickened the tired brain’. Wiley had testified before Congress that caffeine was a poison and a habit-forming drug. He was not fond of coffee or tea but was less critical of those drinks because the caffeine was an indigenous ingredient. But he opposed the sale of Coca-Cola on two grounds: the caffeine was an added ingredient, and the beverage was marketed to children.

As might be expected from a caffienated, sugar-packed drink, the sophisticated double-blind studies showed that people experienced a small boost in mental ability shortly after drinking it, although the case was thrown out for technical reasons.

Although Hollingworth didn’t continue doing drug-testing research, his experience of applying psychology to the corporate world undoubtedly opened the door to his future career in advertising.

Link to ‘Coca-Cola – Brain tonic or poison?’

5 thoughts on “The 1911 Coca-Cola brain poison trial”

  1. Interesting. So Edward Bernays (and Sigmund and Anna Freud) was not the only psychologists in on the birth of the fraudulent marketing industry. I think I’ll pour me a coke and light up a cigarette, cook me some all-american bacon and eggs and celebrate my having escaped that industry 🙂

  2. Currently Coca-Cola is trying to censor the film “The Coca-Cola Case”

    Watch in full here:

    “The Nazis also used Freud’s work to develop means of warfare aimed solely at the minds of opposing armies.

    “The Germans were the ones who coined the phrase ‘psychological warfare,'” Rickels said.”

    So then the U.S. helps the Nazis take refuge in South America to help out Coca Cola and other corporations relying on fascist regimes. Psychology professor Francisco Gil-White was censored and fired for pointing out similar connections between the U.S. corporate-state elite and the Nazi mind controllers.

  3. Thrown out for technical reasons?? I want to know how that trial would have turned out!! Caffeine as poison is interesting though cuz so mnay people today don’t even say they need some coffee or whatever, they say, “I need some caffeine”… seems like a good argument for it indeed being addictive..

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